Hot Sleep, Cold Sleep

Sometimes you wonder if the federal government consciously does things to make you think it’s out of touch with reality.  Here’s one recent example:  the federal Energy Star program, which is jointly run by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, has come out with recommendations on how to operate your themostat during the hot spring and summer months.

setting-thermostat-82According to Energy Star, during spring and summer you should set your central air conditioning thermostat to 78 degrees when you are at home.  If you’re not going to be at home, you should set the temperature to 85.  And when you’re sleeping, you should set the temperature to 82 degrees — or higher.  That’s right — 82 degrees.  And, just in case you can’t make basic, practical decisions without federal government instruction, Energy Star also recommends opening the windows on cool nights to let cool air into your house, and closing the windows during the day so hot air doesn’t invade the premises.

According to Energy Star, every additional degree at which you set your thermostat produces a three percent decrease in your utility bill.  No doubt that is true — but has anyone at the Energy Star program actually tried to get a good night’s sleep in a house where the thermostat is set at a sweltering 82 degrees?  The quality of my sleep is directly tied to the temperature of the room where I’m sleeping.  If it’s above 69 degrees, I’m going to be spending a miserable night tossing and turning in hot, swampy sheets.  If it’s 69 or below — as occurs in Maine, where we don’t even have air conditioning and instead open the windows and sleep in delightful cool breezes — I’m much more likely to sleep soundly.  Trying to sleep in the Energy Star recommended 82-degree room would be a nightmare — except I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep to have the nightmare in the first place.

I can’t imagine trying to sleep in 82 degrees, or coming home to a house that where the internal temperature is 85 degrees, or higher.  It seems to me that enjoying the coolness, and getting a good night’s sleep in the process, is the whole point of air conditioning.  So thanks for the tips, Energy Star, but I’ll nix the 82-degree sleep setting, because to me a good night’s sleep is easily worth the additional utility bill cost.  In fact, I’m willing to pay just about anything for a few hours of uninterrupted, cool, peaceful slumber.

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Tube Steak Follies

Food & Wine magazine, recognizing that we have entered the height of the outdoor grilling season, has published an article about their taste test of the best hot dogs out there.  The article raves about a hot dog that “tastes like steak.”

f5xdfnkThe article says that the Kansas City Cattle Company Uncured Wagyu Beef Hot Dog — which is a mouthful in itself — will change grilling forever.  It explains:  “The umami! The spice! The beefiness! It was basically like eating a steak in a bun, or an elevated “tube steak,” if you will. The flavor had real depth and smoky undertones, and the texture and color (darker, more brown than red) was different than most hot dogs—in a good way.”

It’s nice to know that American food producers have finally developed a tube steak that tastes like a steak — it’s another sign of the rapid progress being made by human civilization, I suppose — but I’m a little disturbed about the apparent migration of identifiable tastes from one food to another.  After all, if you’re looking to have a hot dog, don’t you want it to taste like a hot dog?  A traditional grilled hot dog, in the right outdoor setting, perhaps with a ball game going on in front of you, can be better than a steak.  Don’t we want to keep food tastes in their proper place?  What’s next?  A hot dog that tastes like a cheeseburger or carrot cake?

Plus, as the 2020 election draws closer, we’re heading into the politician hot dog-eating season.  I don’t want Joe Biden and the other candidates out there to take a big bite of a dog and do a spit take when they taste steak instead.

All Politics Is Local

The old saying is that “all politics is local.”  We’ve seen some very tangible evidence of the truth of that saying here in Stonington, Maine.

Last night there was a public hearing at the Stonington Town Hall about food trucks.  It’s a hot issue here for the small business owners.  There’s a limited “summer season” in Stonington when local businesses hope to sell their wares to tourists and visitors enjoying the sunny but not-too-hot weather, and also a limited amount of four-hour on-street parking in the “downtown” area that those tourists and visitors can use.  Business owners are concerned that food trucks can come and use those precious spots for the full four hours, potentially making parking a challenge and causing a visitor to pass their business by.  And the restaurants, all of which are locally owned businesses, aren’t happy with the idea of food trucks swooping in and taking away customers.

Stonington doesn’t have an ordinance governing food trucks.  Should there be one, and if so what should it say?  Last night the town’s Board of Selectmen heard from the public on the issues, and now they’ll decide.

And sometimes the politics is even more local — specifically, about one person with a piece of cardboard and a magic marker.  The sign below was posted on a telephone pole just at the eastern entrance to the downtown area.  Not knowing anything about the “whale rules” that the sign mentioned, I did a Google search and learned that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has promulgated a proposed rule to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.  NOAA believes that the whales are at risk of death or injury from entanglement in the many buoy lines that connect lobster traps on the ocean floor to their buoy markers on the surface,  The new proposed rule would require Maine lobstermen to remove half of their vertical buoy lines in the water — which means directly reducing the potential catch.  In a town like Stonington, where many people are self-employed in the lobster industry, that’s a federal rule that could potentially have an enormous and direct impact on the town.  Public hearings on the rule will begin soon, and Maine’s congressional delegation has appealed to President Trump to quash the proposed rule.  They argue that there really isn’t evidence that the lobster buoy lines are responsible for the decline in the right whale population.

That hand-lettered sign just outside of town got my attention, and made me look into an issue that i wasn’t aware of before.  It just shows the impact of a little local politicking.

Socialists In The Midst

Over the weekend Kish and I went for a walk.  About a block from our house, near St. Mary, we found a poster encouraging people to attend the “launch meeting” for a new group called the Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists (“CORS”).

The CORS recruiting sign reminded me of the signs that were posted around the Ohio State campus by the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade back in the ’70s.  Like those placards from decades ago, the CORS poster complains about bosses and landlords, “racist cops brutalizing our communities,” “imperialist wars,” and “poverty and powerlessness.”  There are some new parts to the revolutionary agenda, too — like concerns about “the threat of climate catastrophe” and attacks on immigrants and refugees — but the bottom line is pretty similar:  fighting against “the exploitation and oppression we face everyday under capitalism” by forming an organization to “fight for the end of the current system and the creation of one run by and for the working class!”  About the only thing missing from the signs I remember from my college days was a reference to “the masses.”

There’s one other difference between the RCYB of days gone by and CORS — like everybody else these days, CORS has a Facebook page, where a group of what apparently are CORS’ founding members — one of whom is wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt — are shown giving the revolutionary fist sign.

The revolutionary socialist agenda went underground during the Reagan era, but socialism has now emerged from behind closed doors and is back in the American political mix these days, with candidates for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020 and some of the new members of the Party in Congress identifying as socialists.  It will be interesting to see how much traction the socialist agenda gets in the United States — particularly when some countries that adopted what were advertised as socialist systems, like Venezuela, have become train wrecks where the ordinary people live in poverty and misery.

It’s also interesting that the agendas and terminology of the revolutionary groups are so similar to what we’ve seen before.  Facebook page or not, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Impact Of Tax Cheats

The Internal Revenue Service estimates that, each year, about 16.3 percent of the nation’s federal taxes go unpaid — and that’s after the IRS takes whatever action it takes to try to achieve compliance.  This “compliance gap” leaves a pretty big hole in the federal budget.  In 2018, if all of the federal taxes that were owed were actually paid, it would have meant another $643 billion in revenue for the federal goverment — which would have covered about 83 percent of our ridiculously large federal budget deficit.

celebrity_tax_cheats-624x300Why don’t people just suck it up and pay what they owe?  That’s not a self-answering question.  The Government Accountability Office says there are three main reasons for non-compliance:  third-party reporting issues, reduced IRS budgets and staffing, and the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code.  The first and third reasons involve mistakes — where third parties don’t correctly report what a taxpayer has earned, or has received in a taxable transaction, or where a taxpayer has legitimately tried to figure out what they owe, and simply been wrong — but the second category clearly relates to the ability of the IRS to ferret out, audit, and penalize those who are knowingly cheating.  In short, if you had perfect compliance, reduced IRS budgets and staffing wouldn’t make a difference.  And the lines between the three categories may be blurry, too.  If a taxpayer professes confusion about how to treat a particular source of income but adopts a stretched reading that dramatically minimizes their taxes, is that cheating, or a product of tax code complexity?

So, what can we do to improve the compliance numbers, recognizing that getting perfect, 100 percent compliance is an unattainable goal?  The answer to that question seems to turn on political inclinations and your view of human nature.  Some people, like the author of the article linked above, think that simplifying the tax code would result in a higher compliance rate — an argument that presupposes that people honestly try to figure out, and pay, what they actually owe.  The flip side argues that increasing the IRS budget for oversight and compliance is the best way to promote compliance.  In short, if more people fear they’re going to get caught, it will have a prophylactic impact on a wider group of taxpayers who will choose to simply pay their taxes rather than risk audits and penalties.

There’s undoubtedly merit in both arguments, although being somewhat cynical about human nature, I tend to agree more with the latter camp — but it’s also true that neither of these solutions has much promise in the short term.  Tax simplification has been the Great White Whale of politics for as long as I’ve been filling out 1040 forms, and it never quite happens.  And campaigning for office on a platform of increased IRS funding and more aggressive tax enforcement doesn’t seem like the ticket to political success.

So we’re likely to bump along as we have been, with many people accepting their federal tax burdens, a segment of the population consciously cheating on their tax obligations, and a continually growing deficit because we can’t actually do something about the “compliance gap.”  It makes you wonder:  at some point, is that “compliance gap” going to grow even larger?

Deepfaking Mona Lisa

These days, it’s hard to tell the real from the fake.  You never know if a quote, or a photo, or a Facebook meme is truthful or manufactured as part of some scheme or for some deep political purpose.  Video footage seems more reliable, but we’ve all seen examples of how careful editing can change the context and the perception.

mona-lisa-1883925Now, it’s going to get even harder to distinguish the real from the fake.  The development of artificial intelligence programming and facial recognition software is allowing for the development of increasingly realistic, seemingly authentic video footage that is in fact totally fictional.  The new word to describe the result is “deepfake,” which refers to the use of AI technology to produce or alter video to present something that didn’t occur in reality.  And the use of rapidly improving technology to produce deepfake video is erasing boundaries that used to allow humans to spot video frauds by focusing in on gestures, subtle facial movements, and other “real” human behavior that computers just couldn’t effectively simulate.  The avatars in even the most advanced video games still look like, well, avatars.

But that is all changing.  A team of engineers from the Samsung AI Center and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow has developed new algorithms that are far more advanced and successful in replicating realistic human faces.  The software is the product of studies of thousands of videos of celebrities and ordinary people talking to cameras.  It focuses in on “landmark” facial features and uses a neural network to convert the landmark features into convincing moving video.  The new software also self-edits by critically scanning the individual video frames that are produced, culling out those that seem unnatural, and substituting improved frames.

As a result of all of this, the new software can produce realistic video from a single, static image.  Take a look at the video of a chatty Mona Lisa embedded in this article, created from the application of the new software to the single image in the famous portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, and then tell yourself that it doesn’t look astonishingly, and disturbingly, realistic.  If Mona Lisa can talk, it sure seems like we’ve crossed a new boundary in the ongoing battle of real versus fake.

Like any new technology, the AI that allows for the creation of realistic video footage from a single image could have positive applications, and negative applications.  It’s just hard not to focus on the negative possibilities in the current era of fakery and fraud, and wonder how this new technology might be used for political dirty tricks or other chicanery.  We’re all just going to have to be increasingly skeptical about what is real, and what is false and realize that passing the “eye test” might not be much of a test any more.

Wake Me When It’s 2020

I’m capable of paying attention to a finite number of things at any given point in time.  And right now, the 2020 presidential race is not even close to making that list.

scottball_beto-orourke_alamo-music-hall_campaign_election_senate_11-4-2018-5-1170x782I see stories like this one — “Beto O’Rourke plans ‘reintroduction’ as 2020 buzz fizzles” — or this one — “Florida takes shape as Joe Biden’s firewall” — and I happily skip over them without a second thought or a guilty conscience.  And it’s not just stories about “Beto” or “Joe” I’m not reading:  I’ll also gladly pass on stories about how “Mayor Pete” is being received by big-money donors in Hollywood, or whether Amy Klobuchar’s campaign is gaining any traction, or how Bernie Sanders is doing in tracking polls in New Hampshire.  I’m not going to read any stories about how any of the candidates are doing on fundraising, or whether they are lining up “super-delegates,” or any inside baseball/horse race analysis pieces, either.

There are people who are political junkies, and I’m not one of them.  At this point, the 2020 election is so far away, and there are so many Democratic candidates vying for the nomination, that I really can’t spend time analyzing their positions or trying to figure out their qualifications or capabilities.  With the number of officially declared Democratic candidates at around two dozen, trying to do any meaningful candidate-by-candidate evaluation is an overwhelming task.  So at this point, I’m fine with allowing the political junkies to carry the ball and do whatever they do to let the field be winnowed down to a manageable number.  Whether the winnowing occurs because of fizzled “buzz,” fundraising efforts, or tracking polls, or super-delegates, I don’t care — just don’t expect me to pay any attention until we’ve got a narrower field that consists of people who might actually have a reasonable chance to win the nomination.

In short, wake me when it’s 2020.